Friday, December 15, 2017
Business

The time is right to improve downtown

The village center at Haile Plantation near Gainesville is a cozy little shopping district with big oaks, brick streets and storefronts that empty out onto sidewalks rather than parking lots.

Squint your eyes a little, ignore the Audis and Lexuses parked on the street, put up a hand to block out the view of diamonds at the jewelry stores (yes, there's more than one), and it might even remind you of downtown Brooksville.

So what?

Well, I last went there 15 years ago, back when there were more construction workers' pickup trucks than luxury cars on the streets. The planning concept behind Haile Plantation — new urbanism — was itself new, and barely tested.

So what I saw on my visit a few weeks ago was solid proof that the concept works. Or can work.

Housing prices have held up better in Haile — and are higher for comparable properties — than in any other neighborhood in Alachua County, said Terry Jewell, director of real property for the county property appraiser's Office. Even modestly sized houses on tiny lots start at about $200,000.

Still, the question remains: So what?

As Seaside, Celebration and even Westchase have shown, the success of new urbanism — basically building new towns that look like old ones — isn't exactly news in Florida.

No, what's happened at Haile is about more than new urbanism. It's about just plain urbanism.

People like it. They like being able to walk out their door and down the street to get a quart of milk. If it's possible, they really like being able to walk to work. They enjoy seeing neighbors not just through the tinted window of a passing car, but maybe at a nearby pub or restaurant.

And when I see this in action in a place like Haile, it drives me a little bit crazy. Because Haile is, when you get down to it, a fake old downtown. And as preferable as it is to, say, a community hidden behind walls and gates, it can feel a little like a movie set, a little bit artificial. And yet it's created a lot valuable real estate, a lot of retail commerce, a lot of connections among neighbors.

And, here in Brooksville, we have a real old downtown, and it's generated, well, not nearly enough money or community — not nearly as much as it could.

So, Haile's village center brings up the same questions as the nearby, bustling downtowns of Inverness and Dade City.

Why there? Why not here?

Lots of reasons, including, in Alachua's case, that we don't have nearly as much money, not nearly as many educated, progressive types willing to pay premium prices, not to mention sky-high homeowners association dues, for the subtle benefits of something approaching small-town living.

Another reason: When outside investors expressed interest in Brooksville a few years ago, they were actually interested in relatively cheap land, relatively close to Tampa.

With a few exceptions, they weren't interested in investing in downtown Brooksville, and the city leadership at the time was willing to watch as their downtown was bypassed and neglected.

There are signs that this thinking has changed, that city leaders realize that even the land around town would be a lot more valuable if you could tell buyers they don't have to drive to Tampa for a nice dinner out or to buy a respectable birthday present for a spouse.

But one reason the time is right to remind people of the benefits of Haile's village center or downtown Dade City is this: It seems the commitment to improve downtown Brooksville might be losing steam, that the Brooksville Vision Foundation might go the way of many other organizations over the years, efforts that started with a bang and ended with a fizzle.

Its June meeting was canceled, and the July meeting probably should have been; that's how bad attendance was.

None of the organization's officers showed up, "none of the heavy hitters," said Sonny Vergara, a board member and "de facto organizer" of the group.

Then this week came news that the Saturday farmers market, a downtown staple for years, is being temporarily suspended.

Yes, it's summer, the season when it seems that everything here comes to a stop except wrangling over budgets. Let's hope that's what is happening here — folks just taking a break.

But I'm worried partly because Vergara says he's worried:

"Too many people (in Brooksville) are like turtles. They literally have to stick their necks out and get involved, to make change happen. I see a great deal of reluctance to step forward."

A shame because if a rhinestone of an old downtown can attract jewelry stores, then imagine the potential of an actual jewel.

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